London: British Dental Association Museum

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Sadly, this is probably a newer model of chair than the one my orthodontist used.

The British Dental Association Museum is one of the many London museums listed on medicalmuseums.org that I’ve been slowly working my way through over the years.  Slowly, because many of the museums have slightly irregular hours, or are by appointment only, and I have a real complex about actually having to call to arrange to see somewhere (I hate calling people, I shudder to think how I would have managed adulthood in a pre-internet world), and then showing up alone, so that the staff just sort of stare at me as I wander through.  Fortunately, although the BDA Museum does have limited opening hours (1-4, Tuesdays and Thursdays), you can just walk in, so I decided to check it out last week.

I was actually kind of apprehensive about coming here (aside from my social anxieties) because although I can very happily look at the goriest of medical things, I’m really, really paranoid about losing my teeth, and reading about historic dentistry, including people having teeth pulled without pain killers, or selling their teeth to rich people, freaks me out.  It probably doesn’t help that my former orthodontist’s equipment was all circa 1950, including his avocado green chair, and some antique clamps he used to force my mouth open when he put my braces on.  One of the more traumatic experiences I had there involved having a head x-ray taken.  His camera was (I shit you not) made of wood, and operated by hand-crank. It was probably a Roentgen original.  I had to stand there with my head clamped in a sort of vise that best resembled a medieval torture device, whilst he slowly cranked the camera around.  The worst part was these ear pieces that were meant to steady your head, but felt as though they were going to perforate my ear drums and drill themselves right into my brain, and after I mentioned how much they hurt, the sadist made me stand there for a few minutes extra so he could laugh at me.  It was awful.

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Although I go shopping on Oxford Street quite a lot (well, whenever I have money, which is not often, but when I do go shopping, it tends to be down Oxford Street), I’d never been back by Harley Street before, though as I can’t afford plastic surgery or private healthcare, I suppose there’s no reason why I would have been.  The BDA headquarters are actually a street over, on Wimpole Street.  I was initially intimidated by the building, because it was an office building, with a receptionist, and if phone calls make me anxious, you better believe I dread the prospect of having to state my intentions to an actual receptionist.  Luckily, the museum was right next to the entrance, through the library, so I was able to duck in without drawing too much attention to myself.

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Now, I know large medical museums tend to be the exception, rather than the rule, but considering their website said, “The Museum has the largest collection of dental heritage in the UK. It houses over 20,000 objects and images.” and, “there’s more to discover than you might imagine,” I assumed it would cover at least a few rooms.  Instead, it was a tiny nook in the corner, with about five display cases.  It was free, so I guess I shouldn’t complain, but obviously that’s not going to stop me.  If they had mentioned how small it was online, I would have skipped it in favour of the Royal London Hospital Museum, which has a replica of Joseph Merrick’s hood-hat that I’m dying to see.  As I was already there, I swallowed my disappointment, and had a look around (which didn’t take very long).

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The BDA may well have the largest collection of dental heritage in the UK, but they must be keeping it all in storage somewhere, as the excellent Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, which has a room of dental history seemingly tacked on as an afterthought, has way more dental stuff than the BDA. I needn’t have worried about being squeamish, however, as the collections were pretty tame.  There were a few of those grisly “tooth-keys,” but most of the stuff, as you can see, was instrument cases or toothbrushes, which do not scare me.  I was in and out of there within half an hour, and it only took me that long because I read every single thing in there (even the excerpt from a dentist’s notes in tiny print on one of the signs), and lingered over display cases longer than I would ordinarily, because I didn’t want the volunteer working there to think I wasn’t enjoying it (even though I wasn’t.  Why do I do these things?).  They apparently have a few more displays spread out throughout the building, but clearly I was not going to ask the receptionist for directions, so I just left.  Honestly, I can’t imagine they are approaching anything near 20,000 objects, even with the extra display space elsewhere in the building, as there were probably only 100 in the actual museum.

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I don’t actually like giving negative reviews to small museums, but there’s no getting around the fact that this one was pretty lame.  There’s obviously a lot of money in dentistry, so I kind of feel like there’s no excuse for the tiny space allocated to the BDA museum, especially in light of how good most of the medical museums are in London.  I’m only going to give it 1/5.  If you’re looking for a medical museum in London, I’d recommend the Hunterian Museum instead.  Even the Old Operating Theatre or St. Bart’s, whilst small, are still way bigger than the BDA, and have much nicer layouts.  From what I gathered, it seems like the BDA’s primary aim is conserving and cataloguing their collections, which is all well and good, but not when it translates into a lacklustre visitor experience.  Sorry BDA, but it was a poor effort.

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